Doing research, learning from community

A few months ago I ran research capacity development on focus groups for staff at a peer-led advocacy and harm reduction organisation (Hi NUAA, you folks rock). I’ve delivered quite a bit of research capacity building in communities, but usually as part of a community-based participatory research (CBPR) project. This focus group training was standalone. It was a bit last minute and I hadn’t liaised properly so there was no projector in the room for my lovely PowerPoint presentation. It was just me and eight people for seven hours… Luckily teaching qualitative methods to hundreds of postgraduates and in community has given me nerves of steel! We worked our way through the slides in hard copy, covering the basics, and I told lots of stories from the field. They were a lovely engaged group and the sessions ran well.

At the end we ran a mock focus group – three people took it in turns to facilitate so we had seven ‘participants’. I said: play a character or yourself, embellish your own story or make it up, entirely up to you. The point was to get experience of facilitating a focus group and experience of being a participant (I do this with my postgrads also). I am often surprised at how few researchers have been research participants, it’s important to understand what it is feel like to be researched.

The mock group ran for an hour and the flow never faltered. We used questions for a future project so the organisation got feedback on their questions. The collective lived experience and knowledge in the room was deeply affecting. Mock group or not, we talked about some important, hard and confronting things (for them and me).

They were really good facilitators – this is not surprising. A group of skilled peer workers are going to be good at relationship building, at facilitating risky conversations with already vulnerable people, and they have the respectful persistence of people accomplished in peer-based health promotion. As peer workers they always occupy a space where they are ‘of the group’ but simultaneously slightly distant from it – there is something about this that makes a focus group work. My postgrad students have a predictable anxiety about bias (born from training in quant methods), and struggle with the idea of a real person with a history, experiences and ideas that they can’t simply leave outside. The peer workers were thoughtful about how to manage their own stuff when facilitating, they knew how to step aside and make it about the participants.

Co-learning is fundamental to CBPR. We researchers are good at articulating what the community is learning through engaging with us, often ‘hard’ and saleable skills. What we are learning from community is rarely formalised (unlike the ‘training’ I offer) and is often about learning how to do this research better with this community (i.e functional and limited). So let me give you an example of a fundamental lesson:

Every time I bring research methods and research ethics to community, my unexamined positions get challenged. Community imagines what you are telling them in their context, with their community. They see the holes and then push you to deal with it. The lesson this time was around relating ethically to participants in our research. I brought up managing a domineering/disruptive participant. This is text book stuff and I have lots of useful strategies that are all based on prioritising the research (i.e. shut them down, sideline them, ask them to leave). The peer workers understood a great deal about their imagined domineering/disruptive participant, including their history of exclusion and stigma. They felt a massive responsibility to be aware of past trauma and find a way to keep everyone in the room and engaging. Initially I tried explaining to them why they were wrong (thoughtful but wrong) and then I felt chastened. A few months later I’m still thinking about this gentle and powerful challenge to think about the ethics of participant engagement. This speaks to a chapter I co-authored about ethics in working with community researchers in sexual health; we drew on Mohatt‘s great account of CBPR to argue for “culturally-anchored ethical practice”. This is about making explicit the values represented across the team and developing a shared-position to work from. The consequences of this might be researchers’ throwing out received wisdom on how to do research.

Image by Brandon VK and used under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0)

NOTE: If you need access to a journal article or book chapter that is trapped behind a paywall, contact me.
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